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Moving Forward, Looking Back

This is text version of remarks I made at Beth El Memorial Park at our annual Memorial Service –

     The Torah reading for Yom Kippur day comes from the 16th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, and offers a description of the ancient ritual of the scapegoat that was enacted by the High Priest on Yom Kippur at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The text is filled with detailed information about the ritual – what clothes the High Priest wore, precisely how the scapegoat was chosen, how the sacrifices were to be performed, how the blood from the animals was to be sprinkled on the altar.  It is more textbook than text, more instruction manual than narrative.

     But there is one detail in the reading that is deeply personal.  It comes in the very first verse of the chapter, which reads as follows:  וידבר ה׳ אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרון – and it was after the death of Aaron’s two sons when God spoke to Moses.  There is no connection between Aaron’s terrible loss and his unspoken grief and the Yom Kippur ritual.  Aaron’s loss is private, his struggle with grief is an internal struggle.  But the ritual of the scapegoat is public, performed before the assembled people, and on their behalf.  So I’ve often wondered why the Torah text includes that detail about the death of Aaron’s sons.

     I do know that there is a temptation to carry our losses with us wherever we go.  The tradition tries to discourage us from doing that.  Each stage of grief is finite, marked by the counting of a set number of days.  The shiva ends and the mourner is pushed out of the shiva house, asked to walk through the doorway and back out into the world.  The sheloshim – the thirty day period – is counted and concluded.  There is a limit placed on the recitation of the kaddish prayer, which should be recited no longer than 11 months.  But the journey from loss back to life, from a broken heart to one that has become whole again, is a difficult journey.  People tell me that the last day of their kaddish is highly emotional, knowing it is the last time they will stand.  It is hard to let go of grief, it is hard to reenter the world after a loss.  It is tempting to stay in the place and to hold on to the sadness, because in doing so, in a way, we also hold on to the people we’ve lost.

     And it is in part the everyday, the simple living of life, that draws us back into the world after loss.  Going back to work, meeting a friend for lunch, coming to shul, going shopping, picking up the clothes at the dry cleaners, sweeping the floor and doing the laundry, spending time with the people that we love, watching a football game, reading a book.  The fabric of life.  Its substance, its day to day.  The sun sets and rises, the world still turns, I have a role to play, and slowly but surely I reenter that world.  I carry the losses with me always, I feel the grief everyday, but in the vast world around me, in my simple busyness, in my work and my friends, in all the tasks I must take care of, it is a smaller thing, my grief, more bearable, less intensely painful.  

     That may be the example that Aaron the High Priest sets for us on Yom Kippur day.  Still suffering from the loss of his sons, he was needed, there was work to be done, others were looking to him for help and guidance and wisdom.  He might have preferred to sit alone, to ponder what had happened, to spend long hours thinking about his sons.  But he was pulled away from his loss, back into the world around him with all of its tumult and responsibility.  And so it often is for us as the days and weeks and months go by.  As Shiva and Shelosim end, as our kaddish period comes to a close, as we immerse in the day to day and return to the world.

     But there are moments when the tradition calls us back to our losses and to the profound sadness that is always just underneath the surface.  When the tradition, after pushing us out of the shiva house, after ending our kaddish, reminds us of how deep the wounds are, how fresh the feelings, how profound the loss, whether we are here today honoring someone who is gone for weeks or months or years.  Yizkor is one of those moments.  This Memorial service is as well.  When we set aside the everyday tasks, when we leave the world that is all around us with its hustle and bustle, and we visit the cemetery, and say the ancient words, and remember, once again opening our hearts fully both to the losses we’ve had, and also to the lives that we cherished and remember today.  

     May those memories comfort us in this season of memory, and throughout the new year that is beginning.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor, Yom Kippur

We Remember

this a text of comments made this morning (9/20) at my congregation’s annual Memorial Service –

It is a long standing practice to visit the graves of loved ones during the holiday season.  In part this speaks to the memories we have of shared sacred time.  On Rosh Hashanah the family dinners and lunches, on Yom Kippur the break fasts, the time sitting together in shul, the conversations and dynamics and interactions that marked our family gatherings.  It is only natural at this time of year to think of the people we shared that time with.  But also the reflective mood of the holiday season, the impulse to look inward and think about our own lives and characters, reminds us that so much of who and what we are is formed through our relationships with others.  Parents who raised us, imparting their values and giving whatever they could give so our lives could be better.  Spouses we shared decades with, raised children with, made a home and a life with.  Children who brought joy to our hearts.  Siblings with whom we shared common bonds that connected us.  Friends who helped us, cared for us, guided us, supported us, laughed and cried with us.  In our season of memory, we remember them all, and we come today to acknowledge again the pain of their loss, but also the continuing joy of their lives.

One of my favorite metaphors for understanding loss is the image of a ship that leaves from the port.  Those of us on this shore watch the ship gently sail out to sea, its sails billowing in the wind.  It takes a turn or two, but ultimately heads for the horizon, that point in the far distance where water and sky meet as one.  She grows tinier and tinier, and then the moment comes when she reaches that distant blending, and suddenly she is gone, no longer visible to our eyes.  “She is gone,” we say, as we stand together on this shore, looking out into the distance.

But tradition teaches us that there is another shore, the farthest shore, beyond our vision, beyond our horizon.  And on that shore, at the very instant that the great ship disappears from our view, she can be seen by those who are already there.  On their horizon she appears first as a tiny dot, moving in the waves, slowly but surely coming ever closer.  At the very moment when we say ‘she is gone’ those on that distant shore exclaim ‘here she comes.  Let us welcome her in peace.’  And those who travel on the ship know they will be welcomed home.  As the shore comes into their view they see its white beaches, and beyond that a far green country under a swift sunrise.

And there are moments when we are blessed with a clearer vision of that other shore, when we can look out to the horizon and see just a bit further, when the shore we stand on and the shore they’ve gone to come just a bit closer to one another.  At those moments we feel a stronger presence, and in that presence a keener sense of absence.

And today is one of those moments.  The holidays, the coming of fall, the turning of the leaves, the deep sense of moving time, the presence of our loved ones here in this hallowed space.  We remember today, and in doing so we honor their lives in the beginning of a new year –

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Where Worlds Touch

a text version of remarks I made at the annual congregational memorial service this past Sunday –

I’ve been asked many times over the years by people, generally with a sense of embarrassment, if I think it is strange that they continue to talk with someone who is dead.  They often describe what they mean to me – it might be a regular trip to the cemetery, or perhaps when they come to shul and touch a person’s memorial plaque, or sometimes each evening before they go to bed.  Some people tell me they spend at least part of every day talking with someone who no longer walks in this world.  What they talk about is generally simple – sometimes they might tell the person they’ve lost that they miss them.  Other times, commonly, they give the person updates on the family, on friends, on important events, this grandchild has graduated, whatever it might be.  They share hopes, and dreams, they express their worries and their fears.

I always ask the person who reports this experience to me if it is comforting to them, and almost without exception they tell me that it is.  It is an assurance to them that the person they’ve lost is still a part of their lives, still present in a way, still connected to them and to their family.  Those conversations with the dead can help people get through a day, or a difficult moment of their lives.  They can help them get ready for a big moment, a wedding or a graduation or a bar or bat mitzvah, when they particularly wish the person they’ve lost could be there with them.

I mentioned a moment ago that when people tell me about these conversations they often seem embarrassed, as if there might be something wrong with what they are about to share with me, as if it is a secret that they don’t want others to know about, I suppose because they are worried people will think it strange.  But I tell them that my sense is that nearly everyone has these conversations, in one form or another.  Some people literally speak out loud when they stand by a grave, and laugh and cry, as if the person is right there, in the very same physical space.  Others have the conversations in their minds, quietly, and for others the conversation does not happen through words, but rather through a feeling, a sudden sentiment or thought that floods into their being.  But for almost everyone who has lost a person that they have shared life with, walked with, lived with, loved, for almost everyone, the conversation continues.

And often, the conversation continues here, in the cemetery.  In the course of a given year I will walk into a cemetery well over a hundred times.  For the burial service of a funeral I am conducting, or to officiate at an unveiling.  And virtually every time I enter a cemetery there is someone else there.  They sit by a grave, they bring flowers, they gently place stones on the markers of people they love.  Some spend only a few minutes, while others brings chairs and will spend an hour or even part of a day.  The cemetery is a place where worlds touch, where our world of flesh and blood and trees and grass and wind and sky can somehow touch the world to come, a place of memory and spirit and rest and peace.  And when the worlds touch our hopes and dreams, our worries and fears, our thoughts – and yes, even our words – can somehow find a way to the other side.

And if the cemetery is a place where the worlds touch, the Yom Tov season is a time when they touch.  When memory is shaper, more distinct.  When the sense of loss is stronger, knowing that another year has gone by.  When the determination to live our lives in such a way that we honor the memories of those we remember today is most in our minds – let the words of our tradition guide us as we remember, and let us begin again the conversations that never end –


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